Winter Walk

Winter Walk

It takes one fall
on the icy sidewalk
for your life to be ruined.
That’s right, just one tumble—
arms flailing,
legs scissoring in the air,
back parallel to the ground,
eyes looking up at a gray sky
unable to intervene—
in a brief suspended
moment before wham—
skull meets ground and blackness ensues.
Traumatic brain injury follows,
and you slip into a coma.
Your family huddles bedside,
waiting for you to rouse,
to wake up and rejoin the living,
like a grizzly bear stepping out
of its den after hibernation.
If you do come out of it
with some brain activity intact,
you may be a shell—withering
in a long-term nursing home.
And while you exist inside,
the costs mount for your family,
and the world outside your window
drags on, unaware of your predicament.
All this because some ice tripped you up.
So don’t be surprised if you see me
walking gingerly on the
glassy surface of the sidewalk,
digging my heels into a
pile of rock salt near the curb,
spreading it around on my soles,
strapping on a pair of
Yaktrax over my boots,
or cutting across the snow-covered lawns.
I guess I don’t mind dying,
or being knocked unconscious,
but I would feel awfully foolish
if a patch of frozen moisture does me in.

Sidewalk Stories (Kelsay Books, 2017)


Snow Poem

Snow on Branches. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I wrote this poem recently and it seems fitting for a day dominated by a lake effect blast.

How to Survive Winter in Syracuse

The only way to survive
a Syracuse winter
is to think of the snow
as a friend and not a foe.
When you scrape the ice
crusted on your windshield
and the snow clogs the streets,
when your tires spin,
or your car veers off the road—
regarding the snow
as a friend and not a foe
will help you to endure the season.
Even when the snow lashes
your face as it blows sideways,
or frozen clumps melt inside your boots,
making your feet cold and damp,
you must remember to
view the snow as a friend instead of a foe.
And what a friend … a friend that keeps on
giving and giving and giving
six months out of the year.
To which I say:
thank you my dear friend,
but I don’t need your generosity.


Posted Notice

This coffee-stained, handwritten message was tacked up outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts on South Crouse Avenue. I had turned toward a wall filled with placards, looking at advertisements for apartment complexes and Syracuse-area concert notices. Then I saw the scrap of paper; the question posed by the writer of this note made me examine my conscious. Do I care about the homeless in CNY? Answer: yes, sort of. What am I doing about it? Not a whole lot.

Posted outside Dunkin’ Donuts. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And this makes me wonder whether a financial contribution to the Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army would make much difference. Would it really help someone?

I always feel like I am being scammed when panhandlers ask me for money when I’m walking in downtown Syracuse or in the Marshall Street area near Syracuse University. I get the sense my money will be used for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Sometimes I politely tell the person I have no change. Other times, if I am in a hurry, I’ll just put my head down, avoid eye contact and walk briskly past the person. But as a Christian I feel guilty for rejecting someone who is asking for help. I know Christ would not snub the person, and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew instructs us to be charitable to those in need:

Matthew 25:40 (New International Version):

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

But I also understand spare change will not solve our city’s and our nation’s homeless crisis. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the problem. Maybe the first step is to recognize the homeless exist and maybe try to treat them with dignity. Maybe that’s what the writer had in mind when he or she posted the missive.

One of the poems in my new collection Sidewalk Stories explores the issues of mental illness and homelessness. I’m sharing it here because it seems relevant; yet in reading it again, I realize the poem is pointless because it raises questions without offering solutions—in short, a lot of words but no action.


Where do those with mental illness go?
What worlds do they navigate in their minds?
Are they able to restrain their thoughts?
Can they find a place of rest in society?
To exist without hurting themselves
Or someone else?

Go downtown in any decent-sized city,
And witness for yourself the ghost people—
The mumblers, the droolers, and loiterers.
They are fragile, cold, broke, and alone,
Dressed in tattered clothes caked with dirt.
The men wear shaggy beards
And flimsy baseball caps
Topping their matted hair.
You see them pacing at bus stops,
Begging for change outside Starbucks,
And sprawled out in city parks,
With their pushcarts and
Garbage bags filled with empty
Soda cans and plastic bottles.

I force myself to observe
The unbalanced people out in public.
I refuse to look away.
I am not gawking.
I am not a voyeur who finds humor
Or pleasure in studying the deranged.
But I do want to remember
The way they look,
To record their facial expressions
When they say things like: “Go away,”
“Stop touching me,” and
“I will devour your children.”

Whose problem is this?
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
And I wonder, just where do we start?
How did we begin the process
Of trying to restore the street people?
Are we obligated as human beings
To care a little bit?
To notice the other life forms
Walking toward us?
Instead of quickening the pace,
Looking at the ground, turning away.

Of course there is an element of fear in us,
A desire not to be attacked
By the crazy people.
This instinct is natural and correct.
But what do we owe our fellow citizens
Who have no intention of harming anyone?
And what do we demand of ourselves
When we see others
Who are suffering a few feet away?
Look, I know it’s not your problem,
And it’s not mine either.
But it does exist and these souls
Are not going anywhere.
We can’t avoid them,
Or force them out of our cities.
So is there anything we can do,
Anything at all to make things better?
And can we at least take a moment
To think about it,
Before dismissing the idea,
And being on our way?


Book Selection

Have you ever gone into a store with the intention of buying one thing but end up selecting another? You want a black belt, but you decide the brown leather one looks and feels better encircling your waist? Or you crave pancakes, but when the waitress comes around, you order a Denver omelet with home fries and wheat toast?

This happens to me frequently when I go to the library in search of a particular book. I write down the call number and head off in the direction of its location. But when I roam through the rows of the repository, my attention gets diverted, I discover a different book, and I choose that one instead.

Here’s an example. On a recent Sunday afternoon I climbed the steps of Carnegie Library at Syracuse University, walked through the grand Reading Room, filled with students studying, and went into the upper level stacks in search of a nonfiction book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (with a call number in the range of RC537).

I had scribbled the call number on a scrap of paper, and perhaps serendipity led me in a different direction because I went to the wrong row, as I had transposed the call number in my head. I started scanning the shelves in the area of RC357, and there, amid a plethora of books about amnesia and other medical problems, a title jumped out at me and seized my attention. Its name: Be Glad You’re Neurotic.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D.

“Wow, was this battered blue and gray hardcover placed in this exact spot just for my eyes?” I wondered. “Am I the intended audience?”

I grabbed it and flipped through the book, and my cursory glance indicated it offered some self-help advice, which, with all of my odd predilections, proclivities, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I am willing to accept.

Be Glad You’re Neurotic was written by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D., and published in 1936 by Whittlesey House, a division of the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. Its earliest library check-out date was January 6, 1965; and the last stamp is dated October 7, 1997.

I’m hoping the book will do me some good. A sentence in the preface reads, “Neurotic states are more common than the common cold.”

And some of the chapter headings inspire me and make me feel better about myself. Chapter I: I’m a Neurotic Myself and Delighted. Chapter II: To Be Normal Is Nothing to Brag About. And Chapter IV: Your Neurotic Development Was Inevitable.

I haven’t read any further yet, and that’s because I have a stack of books I am still waiting to tackle; currently I have five books checked out from the library, while also reading two others via Kindle.

Books waiting to be read.

Books waiting to be read.

And this experience at the library made me realize two things. One—how sad it is that I’ll never have the time to read all of the books I want to. Many titles on my “to-read” list will remain unread. I consider it a metaphor for how there are certain things in life you’ll never achieve or get to do. My dream trip to Ireland and Italy—well, keep dreaming.

The second revelation is that I’m fed up with always seeking out the next book instead of thoroughly enjoying the one I’m currently reading. As a voracious reader, this book lust is a real problem for me. All it takes is a New York Times review or an interview with an author on Fresh Air with Terry Gross to set me off in search of the title in question. My Amazon “wish list” has hundreds of books sitting in the queue.

So after I plow through the pile of books sitting on top of my bedroom dresser, I will try to limit myself to reading only one novel and one nonfiction book at a time—a two-book limit. But I am not sure if I will be successful. I don’t know if I can stop myself from going to the library before I finish reading them both. And I still need to check out a copy of The Noonday Demon.


Anniversary Day

Gratitude fills me on this day, Dec. 12, as I recall an important moment from my life.

Thirty-two years ago this morning, on Dec. 12, 1984, surgeons at SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse (now named Upstate University Hospital) pried open my skull and pulled out a large tumor that had swallowed my pituitary gland, stunting my growth and delaying my maturation during my teenage years.

Upstate University Hospital (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Upstate University Hospital (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Although it was benign, the position of the tumor, a craniopharyngioma located near the optic nerve, meant it could have caused a loss of vision if left untreated. But the surgeons plucked out most of the tumor in a successful eight-hour operation.

The damage to the pituitary gland left me with two lifelong diseases—panhypopituitarism (a deficiency of all of the hormones the pituitary gland produces) and central diabetes insipidus (a condition caused by a lack of the hormone vasopressin, producing the symptoms of excessive urination and extreme thirst).

Still, despite the need for heavy doses of prescription drugs and constant management and monitoring of my health, more than three decades later I am happy to report my last MRI showed I am tumor free. My vision remains intact, with the exception of reaching the age where I require progressive lenses and reading glasses.

Doctors had to perform two follow-up, through-the-nose surgeries, along with a round of Gamma Knife radiosurgery, in order to achieve the positive results. And I know the slow-growth tumor could make a return appearance a few years from now.

My medical ID necklace

My medical ID necklace

But for today I am free of its tentacles.

Today I am thankful for being alive, knowing things could have turned out differently. One error from a surgeon 32 years ago could have meant diminished mental capacity or motor function, or even worse, blindness. Any number of factors could have changed the outcome.

Instead I am nearly 50 now and married to a wonderful woman. And we have a beautiful young son, a nine-month-old tyrant named Colin Joe.

I believe the prayers my family hurled at heaven on Dec. 12, 1984, had something to do with helping me survive the delicate operation. On this feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I can’t help thinking that the petitions my aunt, Sister Carmella DeCosty, made to the Blessed Mother that day were answered. And in this season of blessings and gratitude, I will take a moment to say my own prayer of thanksgiving.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe


Doctor Office Visit

Hopper-esque sunlight pours through the fifth-floor windows of an exam room in a medical office building in Syracuse. The light clings to the white walls on this Tuesday morning as I await the appearance of my neurosurgeon to give me the results of the MRI of the brain I had done earlier in the morning.

I notice the stenciling of letters on the wall directly across from me. The uplifting slogan reads: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to Dance in the Rain.” The words hold little meaning to me on this bright sunny day with highs expected in the eighties.

Words on a wall

Words on a wall

Dr. H. comes in a short time later; I rise from the chair, greet him and shake his hand. He is bald, thin, wears brown-rimmed glasses and is chewing gum. He takes a seat across from me and says, “Everything on your scan—the one you just had—is perfect. No change from a year ago.”

I ask him about residual scar tissue from the Gamma Knife surgery he performed in 2012 to remove remnants of a craniopharyngioma, a benign tumor in the sellar region of the brain, near the pituitary gland. The neoplasm was initially removed at Upstate in 1984, but it grew back and I needed follow-up surgeries in 1988 and in 2011. But it has not returned since the Gamma Knife procedure four years ago.

“It’s just scar tissue,” Dr. H. says. “Everything is clear. So we’ll just plan another MRI in a year. We’ll get you in before the winter comes.”

And so I can proclaim that I am tumor-free for another year. We have kept the craniopharyngioma at bay. And although I push the fear of its return to the outskirts of my mind, I know the tumor could sneak up again at any time. But on this morning I am thankful for the reprieve. It means no follow-up scans, no biopsies, no inpatient admission and no additional surgeries. I am grateful that I don’t need to wait for the storm to pass or learn to dance in the rain—at least for now.


Sister Joselle Orlando: A Life of Art, Faith and Service

Here’s a follow up to a freelance article I wrote about artist and educator Sister Joselle Orlando of Syracuse. In our original interview, Sister Joselle told me a few stories that could not be included in the short magazine piece and web article published by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, and so I’ve decided to collect them here.

With her short stature, salt-and-pepper hair and tendency to talk with her hands—hands that have labored for many years—you could easily picture Sister Joselle Orlando as an Italian grandmother standing in a kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta fagioli (pasta beans) on a cold winter night. But these days Orlando, 74, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Syracuse, New York, stays active by working on personal art projects, teaching art classes, and serving as a hospital volunteer.

Sister Joselle Orlando

Sister Joselle Orlando. Photos by Francis DiClemente.

At the Franciscan Art Studio on the grounds of the Spirituality and Nature Center at Alverna Heights in Fayetteville, she currently teaches adult watercolor classes, hosts “art as pray” sessions, and offers private art lessons. To find out more information, go here.

“Over My Dead Body”

As a young girl growing up in an Italian-American family in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Orlando loved to draw and her father, Salvatore, a machinist who worked in an airplane factory, showed her how to blend colors with crayons. Her mother, however, opposed her daughter’s budding creativity and wanted her to focus on the fundamentals of her education. Orlando says her mother, Mary Carmella, a homemaker and seamstress, once told her, “You go and learn your spelling and you’re not coming out of that room until you know them.”

But as a rambunctious child, Orlando says she rebelled against her mother.

“It took me until about fifth grade before I actually learned how to read or how to do math. So I fought with my mother all through the early stages of my education,” she says. “But I always loved drawing and I knew that I could sing. So the fact that I couldn’t read or spell or do math, once we had music or art, I had more confidence, so that kind of balanced it out.”

When she was in fourth grade, Orlando’s family moved to a neighboring town and the Felician sisters from Lodi, New Jersey, educated her. Through the Felicians, as well as her parish church, Orlando found herself drawn to St. Francis of Assisi, and her affection for the saint strengthened her faith in the Lord and sparked a desire in her to pursue a religious life.

“When I was 18 and ready to graduate, I finally said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m going to enter the convent.’ And she said, ‘Over my dead body you’re going to enter the convent.’”

Orlando says her mother wanted her to become a secretary. But Orlando followed her instincts. She wrote to the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse and they wrote back and welcomed her into the community.

She recalls the pain of leaving home on Sept. 1, 1959, and beginning her new life. “My mother would not come with me that day, she was sobbing terribly. My dad and my brother, my future sister-in-law, and I drove to Syracuse and they dropped me off at the back door. They left and I entered the convent. It was a bit of a dramatic way of entering the community, but I really knew that this was my call from God.”

Sharing Knowledge about Art and Life

Because the Sisters of St. Francis recognized Orlando’s artistic talents, she says the community wanted her to pursue an education in art with the goal of becoming a teacher. Orlando received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and education from Syracuse University in 1974. She later earned a master’s degree in art education from SU and a master’s in religious studies from St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia.

Assumption Church, a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Assumption Church, a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Orlando spent more than 40 years in the field of education, teaching at both the elementary and secondary levels, and her profession became a calling, as she derived joy in molding students and helping them to develop their artistic skills.

She says, “I love to teach and to see how either children or adults evolve and discover talent within themselves and can say to themselves, ‘Oh my God, I did this.’”

Sister Jacqueline Spiridilozzi, who is also a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, has known Orlando for more than 40 years and says her vivacious and free-spirited personality is reminiscent of the character Maria from The Sound of Music. Spiridilozzi says Orlando always gave her students the “space, encouragement, and direction” needed to “bring out the best, promote the potential.”

Orlando has mentored many students throughout her career, including Sarah Guardia-Weir. Guardia-Weir met Orlando when Guardia-Weir was a freshman at Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, where Orlando taught art and served as a campus minister from 1995 to 2007.

Guardia-Weir says Orlando “showed me so many tricks that advanced my art skills and creativity.” She credits Orlando for helping her to get accepted into the demanding architecture program at Syracuse University.

But the relationship went beyond just the teaching of technical skills. While studying at SU, Guardia-Weir reconnected with Orlando, who was working and living in Syracuse at the time.

She says Orlando “taught me the power of friendship and the enjoyment of life through art … to have an adventure and trust in God’s path.”

Guardia-Weir graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a minor in ceramics. She works at an architectural firm in New Jersey and remains active in art, making crafts for her family and friends.

And she remembers some inspirational words Orlando shared with her that still resonate today. “I was worried about aging and worried that life might get boring as my young ideas fade,” Guardia-Weir says. “But Sister explained, ‘As an artist, I can assure you, even at my age that the gift of imagination will never die.’”

Challenged by Jerome Witkin

Bright sunlight streams through the windows of the converted chicken coop that now serves as Orlando’s art studio in Fayetteville.

On this morning, a clear subfreezing day in late February of 2015, Orlando sits at a long table, working on a bright watercolor painting of St. Marianne Cope dressed in her habit and standing in a Hawaiian setting.

Sister Joselle Orlando in her studio.

Sister Joselle Orlando working on a watercolor painting in her studio in Fayetteville, New York.

St. Marianne was a Sister of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. She helped to found St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse in 1869 and later devoted her life to caring for those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in Hawaii. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21, 2012.

Orlando feels a close bond with Marianne and has produced many watercolor works depicting her, including some pieces for the Saint Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum in Syracuse.

Orlando dips her brush in water, swishes it around, dips her brush in paint, and applies it to a white-yellow flower seen in the foreground. Later, she rises, walks a few feet, and points out a print of what she considers her favorite painting. It’s an image of dark cave area with a face visible in the scene.

Close-up of watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Close-up of a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

She painted the piece in 1990 while she was a master’s student at SU, and she recounts how one of her art professors, renowned figurative painter Jerome Witkin, taught her an important lesson about overcoming creative challenges.

In Witkin’s class students had to create a series of large-scale oil works, but they could only use two primary colors plus black and white.

“I painted St. Marianne leaning over a woman in a wheelchair on a beautiful Hawaiian beach,” Orlando says.

Orlando used red and yellow as her primary colors and had worked on the painting for several hours when Witkin came to critique it. As he inspected the piece, Orlando explained to him how Mother Marianne and the other Franciscan sisters had treated patients with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii.

Orlando recalls Witkin’s comments. “He said, ‘And they’re getting close to death, aren’t they?’ I said, ‘Yes, they were dying.’ He said, ‘Well get rid of the sunset, get rid of the beauty … and show me that they’re suffering with death.’ And he walked away. That was Friday afternoon. They were due Monday. And I took my turpentine, washed the whole thing. I was swearing, I was so angry at Jerome.”

Orlando regained her composure and directed her energy toward the canvas, working over the weekend to paint a darker palette according to Witkin’s instruction, choosing red and blue as her primary colors.

The final scene depicts a leprous woman seated in a wheelchair and the woman appears to be part of a cave. The viewer can also see a leprous child’s face in the canvas, and the only source of light is the small figure of Mother Marianne entering the gloomy cave.

For Orlando, Marianne symbolizes the only source of hope for the desperate victims of Hansen’s disease.

Witkin praised the revised work and called it the best piece Orlando had ever done. But Orlando told him, “If I take this home and show the sisters, they’re gonna think I’m in a state of depression, it’s so dark.” She says Witkin then replied, “You don’t go down to the level of your audience, you bring them up to your level.”

Art as Prayer

One way Orlando combines her artistic and spiritual pursuits is by teaching an “art as prayer” class, in which non-artists learn how to use simple watercolor techniques as a language of prayer; a session is scheduled to be held in her studio in September.

During the retreats, Orlando incorporates the symbol of the mandala as an impetus for meditation. The mandala is a sacred circle that “represents the dialogue between the visible and the invisible, earth and heaven, the conscious and unconscious.” Students engage in quiet reflection, learn to paint mandalas, and share their prayer experiences.

A watercolor painting of a mandala by Sister Joselle Orlando.

A watercolor painting of a mandala by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Orlando says the “art as prayer” program helps to enrich the faith lives of participants and gives them confidence in their creative abilities.

“I tell them, ‘It is not the product that you’re going to be displaying in a museum, it is your experience that you have when you’re using simple art tools. It’s what you feel inside.’”

Hospital Volunteer

In her community work, Orlando serves as a volunteer in the Surgical Waiting Room at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center.

She interacts with the family members of patients who are in surgery, engaging them in a conversation and listening to their concerns.

Spiridilozzi, who serves as a coordinator for the sister volunteers at St. Joe’s, says Orlando possesses the ability to reach out to others, even strangers, and her presence provides support and strength to patients and their families.

“She kinda has a natural gift for being empathetic and sympathetic,” Spiridilozzi says. “She’s got that warm Italiano heart, and you know she’s just a natural with people.”

Orlando says she doesn’t ask the people she meets what faith they are, “because it doesn’t matter,” but she tries to allay their fears through an informal connection and the power of prayer.

“It’s sharing part of my spirituality with them and letting somebody know that God still loves them,” she says.

Orlando also privately reflects on her encounters with the family members. She will go to an upper floor at the hospital, look out at the view of the city of Syracuse, and pray for the people she has come into contact with. Her prayer is a simple one, summed up with the words: “Oh God help them.”

“You Don’t Go Singing in the Shower”

Inside Orlando’s art studio, a propane heater hums briefly before shutting off. Orlando stands over it, pushing some buttons and trying to coax the heater to stay on; she makes a plea to St. Anthony and then says in a singsong voice, “do your thing, do your thing, don’t go out again.” But when her attempts to revive the heater fail, she walks back to her seat, picks up her brush, and resumes working on the watercolor painting of Mother Marianne.

Sister Joselle in her studio.

Sister Joselle in her studio.

Her determination to create art and contribute to community life remains strong despite her age. And blessed with good health, she says she has no intention of slowing down her ministry as an artist, teacher, and volunteer. “I have longevity in my family. My dad died at 102 and he was still sharp … and my mother was in her nineties, so I have about another 25 years to go, so hang around.”

Orlando also says she has no regrets about the direction she chose when she professed her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience more than 50 years ago. She believes that what she gave up to God when she entered the convent has come back to her more than a hundredfold.

“And I know that gifts that are given to us to share are not just for us. You don’t go singing in the shower,” she says. “Gifts that are given to us are given for others, and the more you give the more has come back to me.”


Planting Wild Grapes by Kathleen Kramer

Ithaca, New York-area poet and playwright Kathleen Kramer has published a new full-length collection of poems, entitled Planting Wild Grapes (Yesteryear Publishing).

Planting Wild Grapes by Kathleen Kramer. Cover and book design by E. Nan Edmunds. Cover photograph by Green Deane.

Cover and book design by E. Nan Edmunds. Cover photograph by Green Deane.

I became acquainted with Kathleen through our mutual connection with the Syracuse writing group Armory Square Playwrights, and I consider her a friend and a writing confidant.

I was honored when she asked me to write a “blurb” for the back of her book, and I read the collection in galley form via PDF. Holding the hard copy now, I am looking forward to taking my time in reading the printed version; I want to sift through each line of text and let the words and their meanings linger in my mind.

Planting Wild Grapes by Kathleen Kramer. Cover and book design by E. Nan Edmunds. Cover photograph by Green Deane.

Kramer is the author of a poetry chapbook, Inside the Stone (Ithaca Writers’ Association/JK Publications), and a previous full-length collection, Boiled Potato Blues (Vista Periodista). Her poems have appeared in The Comstock Review, Passager, Avocet, a Journal of Nature Poems, The Healing Muse and other publications. And her plays have been presented regionally in central New York, as well as in the Midwest and in Canada.

Kathleen Kramer in Ireland.

Kathleen Kramer in Ireland. Photo by Jack Kramer.

Here is her biography from the interior of the book:

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s coalmining and farming region, Kathleen Kramer’s early life was influenced by the solidity of the earth and the rhythm of seasons.

At 19, she left for the city and spent five years working in Washington, DC for the Department of Defense. There followed a stint in Maine where subsistence farming took her back to the land. A second marriage brought her to Long Island, where she and her husband Jack reared their three sons in Northport, a small town on Long Island Sound. During that time and over a period of 10 years of balancing classes, family and work, Kathy earned a BA at Empire State College and an MLS at C.W. Post.

Now, following retirement from the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell, Kathy lives with her husband in New York’s Finger Lakes area where she writes poetry and plays. Again, the natural world and changing seasons have assumed center stage. It’s these foundational elements and the strength of generational ties which largely inform Kathy’s poems.


And in this interview, Kramer talks about her book and discusses the motivations that propel her writing. I hope you come to appreciate this artist and her work as much as I do.

Can you give a brief description of this collection of poems?  

These poems were written over a period of years and each represents a moment in time when something that seemed important was recognized. Most often, however, the actual moment was, on the surface, quite ordinary. It’s the extraordinariness of the ordinary that moves me. I’ve tried to capture that in these poems.

Not all of these poems address this directly, but I view each one as I might a handcrafted bead: each has its own shape and color and when strung together, they create a necklace that, for me, speaks of wonder and meaning, embracing both good times and hard times.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

This collection tries to do a few different things. It explores the enigmatic title, Planting Wild Grapes, which was given to me in a vivid dream. It seeks to illustrate what I think is required of us as finite beings—to engage in our lives as deeply and meaningfully as we can and then, when the times comes, to release them with thanksgiving and grace. It is my hope that the reader will come away from reading this book with a sense of the wonder and meaning in his or her own life.

What do you enjoy most about writing poetry?

For me, writing poetry has been a connection not only to my inner self and to the natural world, but also to something beyond myself. At the risk of sounding grandiose or pious, I believe creativity and the divine are interwoven. When I can touch that moment as I write a poem, I feel exceptionally blessed.

I’m sure it varies with each poem, but can you describe your typical process for constructing poems—from the moment you get an idea for a work until the final revision?

First of all, who knows where the idea for a poem comes from? Sometimes it’s a snatch of overheard conversation. Sometimes it’s a word or line from someone else’s poem or a flash of memory. Often it’s an experience of being with another person and knowing the tie between you is precious. It’s being outdoors and sensing the wholeness. Regardless of where it comes from, there’s a little “thrill,” like a tiny, soundless bell that rings and says, “Follow this one.”

Then I start to write. I write by hand and I almost always go out of my house to write; I especially like to write in cemeteries. (Very quiet and no one interrupts!) When I have a rough sketch of the poem, I go home and type it into my computer, where it’s easier to shape it on the page.

I’m fortunate to be a member of a poetry group, The High Noon Poets. We meet twice a month and it’s there that we each have our poems critiqued. We’re free to accept the suggestions made or to reject them. Often, even if I feel resistant at first, by the time I’m home again, I’m seeing the wisdom of those suggestions.

How does writing poetry compare to writing plays? Do you have a preference? 

What strikes me most are the similarities. In my opinion, both demand an economy of language. Every word must carry its own weight. Sometimes, a word might be there simply because it is beautiful, and if that isn’t overdone, it adds to the whole and, indeed, carries its own weight.

I like writing both poetry and plays. One of the pleasures of playwriting is the characters one can create. They become real and will often tell me what they will or won’t say or do.

However, I think I have a slight preference for writing poetry. There’s satisfaction in writing a single, well-crafted poem. It can stand on its own. There’s no need to sustain a long narrative, yet if the poet creates a number of poems, giving each a shape and color of its own, together, they can tell the story of a life or a time.

What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?

I’ll continue to write poems and, occasionally, plays—I must, in order to be happy—but for a time now, my main focus will be on doing readings and trying in whatever ways I can to share my pleasure in this new book, Planting Wild Grapes.

Kathleen Kramer reading a poem at an event. Photo by Debbie Rexine for The Healing Muse.

Kathleen Kramer reading a poem at an event. Photo by Debbie Rexine for The Healing Muse.


Here are two excerpts from Planting Wild Grapes (reprinted with the permission of the author and Yesteryear Publishing).

Planting Wild Grapes

Every day at dawn I go down to the river,
fill my bucket to the brim and wash stones.
Big or small, I take all that come to hand,
dip them in my pail, rub them between my palms
and drop them back into the river. I listen
for the satisfying sound—the watery thunk—
as they settle among their fellows.

At mid-day I wade the waves of goldenrod
to the center of the sunny field behind the barn.
Beneath my feet, my shadow crouches,
small and black. The candle in my hand
stands tall, like me, its wick waiting for
the match, prepared to be proud of a flame
invisible in the noonday light.

Sunset finds me again at river’s edge, a teacup
cradled in my hands. It holds rainwater caught
in the downpour at dinnertime. I lift it up
to the sinking sun, see the rim turn gold,
then tip the cup, spilling rain into the river.
Tomorrow, if I keep to my course,
there will be time to plant wild grapes.


When we noticed lunchtime voices
in the hall, the ding of a call button,
squeak of rubber soles on tile floors,

we knew the sound of her breathing
had ceased. For long moments,

her shoulder, under my hand,
remained warm. Then a stillness,
profound and deep, came upon her—

not of worldly sleep but
of rest unbounded by time.

All her ailments, her frailties,
fell away and the wholeness…
the holiness… which remained

gave her back to us
as she was, as she is.


Readers can find Kramer’s 96-page collection on Amazon. And the book is also available at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca.


A short profile of Sister Joselle Orlando

One of my freelance stories, a short profile of Sister Joselle Orlando, a Roman Catholic nun in Syracuse, New York, appears online. Sister Joselle, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities and an accomplished visual artist, expresses her creativity and carries on her faith by serving as an art teacher and hospital volunteer.

Close-up of Sister Joselle Orlando working on a watercolor piece. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Close-up of Sister Joselle Orlando working on a watercolor piece. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I conducted an interview with Sister Joselle in her art studio last year, and I would like to expand the story as a longer blog post in the near future. In the meantime, here are two examples of her artwork.

Assumption Church, a watercolor by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Assumption Church, a watercolor by Sister Joselle Orlando.

An example of Sister Joselle Orlando's use of the mandala as a symbol of faith.

An example of Sister Joselle Orlando’s use of the mandala as a symbol of faith.


Quiet Intersections: The Graphic Work of Robert Kipniss

In September I traveled to New York on two occasions to gather video footage for Syracuse University’s Arents Award video tributes, which our department produces; the Arents Award is the university’s highest alumni honor. My colleague Bob and I stayed at SU’s Lubin House, the university’s home base for New York City operations. We also shot a few interviews there. While staying overnight at the Lubin House, I had a chance to walk into the Palitz Gallery on the premises and view the Robert Kipniss exhibition mounted there. The exhibit continues until Nov. 12, and my review follows below.


The ventilation system hums inside the Palitz Gallery at Syracuse University’s Lubin House in New York City. But standing in front of some of the graphic works of Robert Kipniss currently on view at the gallery, you may imagine other sounds—a screen door swinging shut, a train roaring in the distance, cicadas singing and the wind moving through tree limbs.

Quiet Intersections: The Graphic Work of Robert Kipniss presents more than 30 prints depicting interior still life scenes and rural landscapes composed of plants, windows, houses, trees, hills and fields. Most of the works are black and white, while others have subtle earth tones like mauve, green and brown.

Branches by Robert Kipniss (1967)

The prints are part of the Syracuse University Art Collection, a gift from James F. White, and cover more than 40 years of Kipniss’ career—from 1967 to 2013. Most are small works, the largest measuring 24 by 18 inches (height to width).

These pieces show a consistency in style and composition, as the artist uses a dark palette, dynamic angles and carefully constructed geometric patterns to draw the viewer’s eye and create a moody atmosphere.

Four Houses by Robert Kipniss (1991)

Four Houses by Robert Kipniss (1991)

With the human figure pulled from the scenes, we get the sense of seeing the subjective point of view of a person standing in a living room and looking out a window at a dew-covered backyard or hillside in southern Indiana, or sitting at the kitchen table in the early morning hours, sipping that first cup of coffee and observing the sunlight filtering through parted curtains. Hence, the works stimulate introspection and possess greater allure than straight still life or landscape prints. Their power lies in what they are able to represent or conjure in the mind of the viewer.


Without Within by Robert Kipniss (1978)

Without Within by Robert Kipniss (1978)

And Kipniss prevails in his subtlety. This is not art on a grand scale showcased in a massive and overcrowded gallery space; instead, this is art to live with and reflect on, objects to hang on a wall and return to on a daily basis.

Kipniss was born in Brooklyn in 1931. Both of his parents were artists and he developed an interest in both verbal and visual expression. He studied at the Art Students League and earned two degrees from the University of Iowa—a bachelor’s in English literature in 1952 and a master of fine arts in painting and art history in 1954.

He won an art competition in New York in 1951 and was awarded his first one-man show. After serving in the Army, he and his wife returned to New York City. He worked evenings at the U.S. Post Office and spent his days painting and writing poetry. He then made the decision to devote his time entirely to painting, which meant he shelved his writing.

He would, however, jot down observations about his life and work over the next several years, and these memories would form the basis of his 2011 memoir, Robert Kipniss: A Working Artist’s Life (University Press of New England).

Kipniss has exhibited his work in more than 200 solo shows. He is represented in the permanent collections of several prominent museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

He was elected to the National Academy of Design and to the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers in London.

Vase with Branches and Chair (2013)

Vase with Branches and Chair (2013)

The exhibition will remain on view through Nov. 12; it is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is free and open to the public. The Lubin House is located at 11 East 61st Street between Madison and Fifth avenues. Contact 212-826-0320 or for more information.

After it closes in New York, the exhibit will travel north and then open in January at the Syracuse University Art Galleries in Syracuse, New York.